Posthuman Laocoön

Márió Z. Nemes

Zdeněk Burian (1905–1981) is the most significant “palaeo-painter” of the modern era. Although this phrase comes across surprising at first glance, it fits perfectly the project of modernity which synthesises science and art, since in this case, painting becomes a visual tool of natural scientific (palaeontological) reconstruction. The vision of “scientific painting”, inter alia, goes back to the natural physiognomic landscape painting of Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Gustav Carus; on the basis of natural physiognomy, the role of painting is not to perpetuate some kind of “mood” or the surface of reality, but to explore essence through the depth of the landscape. From the perspective of scientific ideology, this essential profile strikes us as truer and more accurate than the instantaneous condition of the landscape, although we could never meet it in this form in nature. Burian’s palaeontological paintings are similarly paradoxical representations, since palaeontological evidence lend them a mimetic basis, although we can not ascertain the exact proportion of fiction and reality in the staged scenes.

Zdeněk Burian’s image revisited by Mark Fridvalszki

The dinosaurs are just as real as the physiognomic essence of the landscape, ie. they are wholly real and wholly unreal. In both cases we are dealing with sensuous abstraction: residue-like traces brought to untrue life by the corrupt, but visionary covenant of science and art. However, the particular image-theoretical status of the dinosaur-representations complicates this project further because the dinosaur is an entity that precedes humanity and nature (to the extent that Judeo-Christian tradition over-theologised it), whilst from an aesthetic point of view, it would be more accurate to speak about “outness”, or some kind of achronotope (Imre Bartók). Dinosaurs have an infallible position before us only from the perspective of palaeontology; controversially, their cultural status is much more vague, since on one hand, they are indeed present as man-made images (or pop-mythological simulations), but on the other hand, they are irretrievably distant (“out side” and “in another time”) as inhuman “aliens” that irritate the anthropocentric ontology. One of the most significant pop-cultural reference of the post-human paradigm, Jurassic Park (1993) also refers to the fact that, sooner or later, biotechnology may “materialise” this ambivalence (which stems from the fictionalisation of natural history) or rather, because of the stimulatory quality of our “scopic regimes” (Martin Jay), dinosaurs already walk in our midst — and they are even more “real” then Apollo of the Belvedere.

Zdeněk Burian’s image revisited by Mark Fridvalszki

They are more real for Burian at least, who searches for the roots of European visual culture beyond Ancient Greece, and — transcending the cult of the human figure — recognises the Laocoön of post-humanity in a fight between a Triceratops and a Tyrannosaurus.

(Translated by Zsolt Miklósvölgyi)